Transcription Communities: Experiencing a Transcribathon in a Class Setting

By Nancy Simpson-Younger

As part of my Book in Society class, thirteen students took part in the Transcribathon on Wednesday, October 7th, For this group, transcribing Winche’s work was the culmination of a two-week unit on paleography, which covered italic and secretary hands as well as early modern print and manuscript culture. (This unit was also part of a larger historical trajectory for the course itself—which, by December, will have covered artifacts from scrolls to iPads.) Because of this context, my students experienced the Transcribathon as a reflection of a particular historical moment—but also as an intersection between three communities: our own class group, the larger EMROC consortium, and the early modern communities of recipe writers that we’ve been studying. In this post, I’d like to explore the intersections between some of these historical and community contexts, and then to share some questions that these intersections helped us investigate in our class.

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Until we began the transcription unit, my students had read about the communities that spring up around books (for example, groups of monks in a scriptorium, or professional Torah scribes)—but we hadn’t experienced a textually-rooted community firsthand. EMROC was a fantastic community to start with, because it not only unites scholars from around the world but provides electronic forums (Twitter, blogging, etc.) that students can easily access and participate in. During the Transcribathon, for example, my students quickly started tweeting their findings, and they were delighted to experience instant dialogue with scholars from different time zones:

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Using Twitter was particularly compelling for a couple of reasons. First, many of my students are Communications Studies majors, interested in examining community discourse (and the role of technology in that discourse). Second, Twitter allowed us to interrogate the relationship between the manuscript and the digitized version(s) of that manuscript in a new way. While we had used the work of Heidi Brayman Hackel and Ian Moulton to discuss the digitization of early modern archives, we hadn’t experienced manuscript digitization in a realtime, community-centered format. The Twitter feed allowed us to ask how social media technology enables (re)iterations of a text in a way that recontextualizes not only the words, but the history and signification of each recipe.

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This led us to start asking some important questions—both during the Transcribathon and in its aftermath. If a word is clipped out of a manuscript, how does it signify differently? What happens when that word is placed into a new context—not only the context of the Tweet itself, but the context of EMROC’s work, or a laptop (or, indeed, IHOP?) What’s the relationship between the recipe part (word or ingredient) and the recipe or manuscript whole? Sharing pictures of specific textual snippets allowed us to start asking these questions, and to ask what the ramifications of social media might really be for signification, writ large.

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Because it enabled these questions, linking the topics of historical and community context, the Transcribathon was a compelling wrap-up for our early modern unit. For the students, the project also drove home the notion that historical texts aren’t frozen in a particular historical or geographical spot. Instead, early modern manuscripts inspire ongoing scholarship and conversation, allowing us to ask what the effect of our own technology might be, and how intersecting contexts might ultimately re-inflect meaning.

Nancy Simpson-Young teaches at Pacific Luthern University.